The Dome Comes Home

Nearly one hundred years after theTiffany dome was created, visitors can once again experience the full brilliance of this magnificent gem in its third home, the rotunda of the recently completed Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. Senate Building.

"I was not around for the first, but I was for the second and third," says Sen. Robert R. Neall, who, in reference to the multiple moves the glass dome has made, envisioned and implemented the transition.

In 1976, the Tiffany dome was moved for the second time to a housing in the ceiling of the Joint Hearing Room of the Legislative Services Building, where it was enjoyed by its occupants, but not usually by the general public. And, for the past quarter century, the colorful leaded glass skylight had been illuminated by eighteen 500-watt quartz iodized flood lamps in an attempt to replace the source of natural light for which it was originally designed.

The dome, which was designed and built by Louis Comfort Tiffany in 1903, was commissioned specifically for the Court of Appeals (formerly in the State House) in a new building on State Circle designed to provide office space for the legislature, the judiciary and other government offices.

Along with the five pieces Tiffany built for the State House, the dome was installed in its first home in the Court of Appeals in 1904 and remained a focal point of the Edwardian structure until 1974 when it was dismantled and reinstalled, two years later, in the ceiling of the Joint Hearing Room of the Legislative Services Building.

Louis Comfort Tiffany, one of three sons of the wealthy Charles Tiffany and known in his day as the "King of Diamonds," set himself the goal of putting a piece of Tiffany glass---windows, blown glass or the fashionable table lamps---in every household in America. Tiffany glassware was at its best at the turn of the 19th century, and the finest examples of Art Nouveau masterpieces were produced by a small but productive and influential group of artists and craftsmen at the Tiffany Studios.

According to Sen. Neall, the idea of using the Tiffany dome in the Senate Building was "serendipitous." He recalls, "When the new Miller Senate Building was initially designed, the plans called for a four-story atrium. During the construction process, however, we made some changes to make the interior more attractive and more functional. We decided to eliminate the atrium and were looking for a strong architectural feature---a rotunda, perhaps. We thought, 'Wouldn't it be nice if...' And then, it just hit us---what we needed was a skylight, and my mind went immediately to the Tiffany dome in the Joint Hearing Room of the Legislative Services Building.

"We needed to get permission to move it. Sketches were done so we had something to show. Then we had to secure a contractor who could remove it and refurbish the glass. There were some problems with the dome---it was warped in places and some of the lead was damaged-so there was conservation and restoration work to be done."

Overall, the Tiffany dome is 20 feet in diameter. It is comprised of 49 sections, including the top center piece which is three feet in circumference. The other 48 pieces vary in size and together they form the 12 pie-shaped sections that comprise the dome. "It was reinstalled in its new location (Miller Senate Building) with expansion joints," says Sen. Neall, who explains that "it was mortared into place in its previous location and that [rigidity] caused the warping."

The dome was removed by Waters Craftsmen, Inc., recalls Sen. Neall. "There were a lot of days when I used to just stand there and watch what was going on. My nightmare was that someone would pick up a hammer and a chisel and, don't you know, the very first day one of the workmen did just that!"

To protect the 100-year-old panels in transit, each section was individually crated. The crates were divided into four trucks for transport to the Waters Craftsmen's workshop in Front Royal, Va. In this way, only a portion of the historic dome would be lost in the event there was an accident en route. Sen. Neall, for whom this had become an intensely personal project, admits to making more than one trip to the workshop to check up on the glass.

Now safely installed in its new location, the dome is protected by a section of roof which is open to light and covered by specially tinted glass that's thick and strong, thus protecting the dome from the weather, physical objects (such as falling tree limbs) and from ultraviolet light, which is harmful to the antique stained glass.

Sen. Neall is quick to point out the interesting combination of 19th century technology and its 20th century counterpart, a theme that is consistent with the new Senate Building. "We have a Georgian Colonial motif," says Sen. Neall. "Even though this building is filled with 'whiz bang' technology, I wanted it to look 100-years-old. We've kept it traditional, with restored antique mantles and mirrors that, like the dome, were once part of the old Court of Appeals building."

The placement of the Tiffany dome in the rotunda creates a dramatic entrance for the visitor to the building. "Important things happen here," says Sen. Neall, "The Miller Senate Building is the site for all of our public activities---all of the major hearings, briefings, public testimony and voting sessions in committee. With the exception of what we do on the Senate floor, virtually everything else takes place in this building."

The building was designed with the public in mind, and the use of the Tiffany dome in the rotunda to replace the four-story atrium created four grand gallery spaces for exhibitions and public gathering.

Four stories below the dome, the exquisite marble mosaic of the Great Seal of Maryland, 10-feet in diameter, adorns the entrance to the Senate building.

According to Vicky Fretwell, public information officer in the Office of the President of the Senate, "the plan always called for a replica of the State seal in the floor. When we redesigned the foyer to accommodate the dome, it became apparent that the mosaic could go directly beneath it."

Ms. Fretwell explains, "It was originally to be made of terrazzo, although terrazzo is more muted and not as clearly defined as mosaic tile."

But Sen. Neall had seen the work of Sara Baldwin of New Revenna Mosaics and Stone when he was visiting friends on the Eastern Shore of Virginia. "I showed her the seal on my ring and then sent them a CD. They, in turn, supplied us with a small template of the proposed mosaic design so we could carefully consider our decision."

In the end, the decision was made to choose mosaic tile over the terrazzo process in order to more effectively convey the story of the seal through the sharper color and finer detail of the mosaic tiles. It took several months for the design to be completed in the Exmore, Va., studio. Then the pieces had to be cut, placed on an adhesive background material and divided into eight sections for delivery. When it was installed, "the group worked at night so as not to interfere with the daytime construction workers or their dust," says Ms. Fretwell.

In a poignant footnote, Ms. Fretwell recalls that the State seal mosaic was the very first large project for a new employee of the Virginia company---a welfare mom, formerly a crab picker, who was approached by New Ravenna for the manual dexterity required to handle the small, irregular pieces of tile---like a jigsaw puzzle, every piece had to fit together on site.

The visitor to the new Miller Senate Building can now enjoy the experience of standing on one work of art while viewing another. Thoughtfully placed with full exposure to natural light, the Tiffany dome above illuminates the State seal four stories below in exactly the way Louis Comfort Tiffany might have imagined.

Portions of this article were excerpted from The Capital Connection newsletter through the courtesy of Vicky Fretwell, public information officer, Office of the President, The Senate of Maryland.


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